Monday, October 31, 2005

A true and ghostly tale

My grandma was a Murphy before she married, which may explain both my gift of the gab and my acceptance of things that go bump in the night. The Irish, as you may well know, though somewhat civilized and evangelized, have never completely been willing to write off those eerie coincidences. Perhaps with it being the night when the curtain between this world and the next is more permeable, it's time to share some coincidences that occured on my sod here on this side of the pond.

Our house was once far on the edge of this small town in southwestern Wisconsin, built in 1922. We are only the third family to occupy this budget-Arts and Crafts bungalow, having moved here in 1982. The previous owners lived here but a year; prior to that, it was for years "the buttermaker's house." Mr. Runge grew up in this house, living here as a bachelor until retiring to warmer climes. Until his mother's death, she too lived here with her son. The house was mostly sound, though it showed its bachelor heritage in the form of ugly beige siding, horrible patterned carpet in the kitchen, and an incredibly ugly hot pink, 50s era bathroom, which by now is probably back in vogue, but we've since corrected that decorating faux pas. Although it had fallen into a bit of disrepair, we were delighted with a brick patio that had a stone fireplace, imagining evening fires with friends, kids chasing fireflies as we sipped our cold drinks. There was just one strange element of this patio. The gravestones.


Yes, gravestones, or rather, chunks of gravestones. Big marble pieces, with the corners broken off, and clearly having been in soil at one point in time, judging by the even stain along the bottom of the largest piece. The most we could make out was a name--"Sharpless"--and age at death--"Age 58 yea." The rest had long since been taken by time and the elements. They were a great conversation piece, leaning up against the brick wall.

We kept the conversation going until the day came when our then-young son, fooling around, had one of the chunks fall over and land on his foot. We realized it was bad enough our own kid's toe was swollen. What if it had been someone else's child? We got rid of the gravestones.

Fast forward to five or six years ago. My husband was out staining the deck we'd recently built one fall afternoon, when this stranger walked up and asked, "Do you like pictures?"

Turns out he was Mr. Runge's nephew, who had lived in the house next door, which we'd learned had been built when Mr. Runge's sister was married. The nephew had been visiting his mother and going through her things, and among them were some old photos of our house, back in the days when it was still the edge of town.

Of course I was thrilled to get these. We talked awhile with our visitor, and he shared a lot of anecdotes about the house and its occupants, and left his phone number, telling us to "call if you have more questions."

Bubbling back up, I remembered one more question.

"What was with those gravestones?"

"Oh, THOSE. My uncle was kind of weird, I always thought that was strange. He used those as table tops out here."

Well, we'd already been told that. I still wanted to know the answer to the Big Question.

"Where did they come from?"

"Oh, that's the strange part. He just kind of helped himself to them when they crumbled over in the graveyard."

I was starting to feel just a little uneasy.

"What graveyard?"

"Oh, back there." He pointed in the general direction of our back lot. "There's people buried out there. There was a really old graveyard there a long time ago."

Immediately, I began to wonder at all the "chicken bones" unearthed over the years in our vegetable garden each spring.

My sons, preadolescent at that point in time, were of course delighted to hear this story. Only lately have I learned from certain members of the family that perhaps there is more to this story. Apparently, at least two members of the household have seen a ghostly vision, always in the same corner of the house, always in the early morning, and always fleetingly. It's a feminine presence, and they feel that she is simply watching us to be sure that all is well with us.
If you look too closely, I'm told, that vision disappears. One must pass through quickly, and look from the corner of one's eye.

I haven't seen her yet. But my Irish soul tells me it's a good thing to have someone from the other side watching out for us. Heaven knows, we all could stand someone watching over us.

Happy Halloween!

The house, circa 1930

Comment: Several people have noticed a "ghostly figure" in the corner of this photo. I hadn't, until it was pointed out to me. Looking at the original, I'm sorry to say that this is not my household ghost, but what appears to be the photographer's shadow.

Too bad, but still kind of an amazing coincidence, given I had several photos from which to choose!

Image hosted by

Friday, October 28, 2005

Why didn't *I* think of this?

I knew going to the National Storytelling Festival that taking photos of the storytellers in performance was forbidden. Understandably so, when the tents were packed with as many as a thousand listeners. Permanent visual damage from so many flashes could ensue, not to mention how much it would detract from the experience.

Going in, I also knew that many of the tellers would happily pose with you for photos after their sets, but that's just so--cheesy! I'm a teller myself, it just seemed weird, so I never did that. I'm not really a fan of posed photos, facing the camera and saying "Cheese!" despite my Dairy State residency. Let the Milk Board handle the promotion, okay?

Yesterday, though, someone on the storytell listserv provided a link to "forbidden tent photos." This woman was brilliant. Kind of like a new twist--or knit one, purl two?--on the now-familiar "Flat Stanley," she had tellers pose with her sock in progress.

I wish I'd thought to do this. I even had a scarf in progress along, keeping me amused on the bus trip. Angela, the sock knitter, you're my new hero!

You can also visit her main blog here, where she rejoices in her sock's newfound fame, and shares a photo of a friend telling at the Swapping Ground. She knits some awesome socks. I think maybe I need to move on to socks. Everyone I know has a scarf by now!

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Honor bestowed...

This school year got off to a rough start. Nothing seemed to work smoothly; schedules were unbelievably convoluted, classes crowded, more and more mandated tests imposed upon the demands of the curriculum. Thank goodness at least one teacher at my school pressed to keep alive the things that make a difference for her students--weekly visits by Mrs. Calvetti, "The Storyteller."

Last year, this teacher was the only one who took me up on my offer to tell stories in the classroom. It clearly has been important to these kids, because they always pointed out if it was Day 5, story day. For whatever reason, this class of kids has more than its share of the typical issues facing classroom teachers today---families in transition and crisis, children with significant attention problems, emotionally needy kids--nearly every one of these little bodies has a Big Issue. Over the years, I've noticed that groups like this one respond particularly well to the magic of story. Their teacher sees it, too. She has looped with the same group of kids. Last year, she was their 1st grade teacher, this year, 2nd. She wanted to know if I could tell stories again--"Anytime, whatever we're doing, we'll stop, because they need this and they get so much from it."

At long last, I was able to begin this weekly tradition with these kids as 2nd graders. They could not wait! I stepped in the room and they all stopped; time literally froze. They all gathered around the chair where they knew I would sit, their little faces glued to me.

I told them they'd be learning a really, really hard song to help me tell this story. They were ready. I used the two line refrain I'd heard Odds Bodkin use to tell the story of the Four Wisemen and the Lion's Bones. They roared like little lions themselves when they realized just how "hard" my song really was, then settled in the take in the mental motion picture being painted as they listened to my words.

The story finished, one boy said, "What's the other story?" Ah yes, now these were 2nd graders and understood the significance of the word written on the chalkboard--"stories," as in plural, more than one. Quickly, I decided to tell a silly spooky camp story--the "turn me over" one over which made us groan as kids. Two of the girls clearly knew the story. I could tell by their excited faces and knowing nudges, but they kept it in.

What was so amazing about that? One of those girls suffers from some major behavioral concerns, often translated as outright and loud defiance. Not this time. When the kids were done groaning, I thanked the girls for keeping the story to themselves so the rest could enjoy it. She simply said, "Well, it's SO pathetic!"

And I said, "Yes, it is, and I saw you smile, anyway!"

Later, passing the kids lined up in the hall, they all watched me almost reverently. Aha, I thought to myself. This is but a small taste of the honor bestowed upon the seanachies of old. No matter how tech-savvy these kids become, they fall awestruck at the notion of stories told "the old way."

It's a great feeling to have, honor bestowed. Share a story told "the old way" with small people you love. You'll see I speak the truth.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

The plot thickens......

When you're surrounded by storytellers, you are surrounded by plot. Every single performance, every teller presents plot after plot, woven together with words, voice and action. The National Storytelling Festival brings together a delightful combo plate of tellers, some who have become almost Festival institutions, others who are new to the national scene. Try as I might, I know there were a few I missed, and I'm told it's nearly impossible to hear them all. I came close, though.

One of the tellers I heard was also the very first "real" storyteller I heard, though when I heard Gayle Ross last, she was half of Twelve Moons Storytellers, performing with Elizabeth Ellis. They were featured at the Great River Festival of Music and Crafts in LaCrosse, in the very early 80s. I heard them under trees throughout the weekend, and looked forward to their concert performance in the evening. The weather wasn't cooperative, and the concert was moved indoors--to the university gym. Didn't matter. When those two started into their story, the entire gym was mesmerized, myself included. I couldn't tell you who else was on the bill that night, because I'd decided at that point, I wanted to be able to do what Gayle and Elizabeth had just done, which was to capture the imaginations of all those listening.

Twelve Moons Storytellers has long since gone their separate performing ways, though I noticed that if Gayle was performing, Elizabeth was in attendence. Gayle Ross is a descendant of John Ross, Chief of the Cherokee Nation during the infamous Trail of Tears, and many of her stories reflect her heritage and family history. To understand what it means for someone to share stories from within her own culture, one only needs to hear her tell the story of the Cherokee Rose.

Another teller I had the chance to hear again was Bill Harley. I first had the pleasure of meeting Bill at the Nebraska Storytelling Festival a few years ago, where he was a featured teller. I had the particular joy of taking part in a workshop he presented and roaring with laughter as he told the story of Mrs. Ammons and the Boy's Bathroom. Bill is just a cool guy! A cool guy who tells great stories. I will confess that although I didn't become a "Bill groupie" over the weekend, I tended to choose tents where I could hear him perform at least once each day of the festival. As a teacher, I once more found myself often holding my sides as he told about his second grade foray into the Teachers' Lounge. Bill has the rare gift of being able to present a finely crafted tale as if he were just sitting in the living room with a bunch of friends, in spite of standing on a stage with lights and a thousand people in the audience.

Ed Stivender. What can we say about Ed Stivender? I have some of his audio tapes and video performances, but the real deal is WAY better. You have not had religion until you hear Ed tell the Nativity Story using chess pieces as props. Not a chance!

Image hosted by

I remembered when Eth-no-tec first appeared on the storytelling scene; lots of discussion on the storytell listserv about their style, the theatrics of it, whether it was storytelling or not. I couldn't wait to see them for myself, so I made sure I was in a tent on Friday that featured them.

Yes, they are theatrical in their presentation, but so are many other tellers, Milbre Burch, for instance. They came to storytelling from theater, so why should that surprise anyone? As for whether it's storytelling or not---yes, it is, and a delightful and refreshing take on the art form. I've always marveled at tandem tellers and their ability to work together. To add in the visual presentation of these two completely staggers my very small brain.

We had the special pleasure of seeing them perform along with a friend at the Saturday Fringe Festival. The story they told is one that was a bit of a touchstone for me. Storytellers get to a point where most stories are familiar to us in some form. Yet I heard this completely new to me tale not once, but three different times at the Festival from three different tellers--Odds Bodkin, Jennings and Ponder, and by Eth-no-tec and friend at the Fringe.

I missed only two sessions due to my booksigning commitments. I'd bought tickets for the Ghost Story concerts in the park, but the cold rainy weather kept me in the tents instead. Yet another reason to return to Jonesborough.

The funniest personal incident for me occured Saturday afternoon. Kevin Kling has landed on the storytelling scene in a big way, packing any tent in which he appears and gaining standing ovations for his funny, touching and almost Jack Benny style delivery that has to be experienced live to fully appreciate his considerable talent. Kevin Kling was also my youngest brother's roommate back in their starving student days. I had a message to deliver and all my friends knew it. Before his solo set, my friend Yvonne Healy got his attention to introduce me.

"Hi Kevin, I'm Gwyn Calvetti, really looking forward to your set, but I have one question for you."

I'm sure he was already wondering who this flake was.

"Does the name Fritz Johnson mean anything to you?"

For a moment, he had this look of 'where did THAT come from, and why HERE?' but he simply responded with a hesitant, "yes?"

Knowing my brother as I do, I can understand Kevin's hesitancy.

"Well, I'm Fritz's big sister, and he has a message for you. Here's his number, and he says, 'Call me, Butthead!'"

Kevin broke into a guffaw, took the card and said, "Well, great! Thanks!"

Later I caught up with him in the Marketplace Tent and had the chance to have him suggest which of his CDs would be perfect for Fritz. I do hope that he and my brother can reconnect. After hearing him tell, I understand perfectly why he and Fritz connected in the first place.

I could write books on all the wonderful tellers, the stories and the entire Jonesborough experience. I'll conclude my lesson by saying, in the immortal words of the Terminator---

"I''ll be back!"

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The characters of the story......

We have the wonderful, storybook setting of Jonesborough, tucked in the Smoky Mountains, as our location for my magical weekend. Next lesson....the characters. And any event involving storytelling will surely have its share of characters!
Image hosted by

The fellow in the tie dye overalls was around all weekend, easy to see. Perhaps that was the purpose of his colorful dress? Each day, he would be spotted somewhere, sporting slightly different, but equally colorful overalls. We never did figure out if he was one of the locals--the consensus was that the locals leave town this weekend!--or a storyteller himself, like many of us, enjoying the weekend as a storylistener. Whatever his story, he was sure to bring a smile to anyone who spotted him throughout the weekend.

There were other characters to be seen as well. A huge part of the charm in Jonesborough is the opportunity provided at every corner or storefront for character placement. Benches adorn the sidewalks, a wonderfully convenient spot for our characters to "park it" and enjoy all the colorful passersby.

Image hosted by

Certainly, the main characters of this weekend were the many excellent storytellers themselves. To maintain the mood of the festival tents, photos weren't allowed. That doesn't mean it was impossible to capture the moods and moves of some of the tellers, not if one stopped to enjoy the unofficial "Fringe Festival" in front of the Courthouse steps Saturday afternoon. This event is one that will never be found in the Festival program, but thanks to storytelling's own "character," Ed Stivender, along with teller Angela Lloyd, this street show has gone on for several years. Tellers can range from some of those folks not known outside their own circle to featured tellers at the tents. Add in a little Morris dancing, banjo picking and group singing, and you'll have the chance to enjoy many characters, both the performers and the story characters.

Image hosted by

Friday, October 14, 2005

The setting....Jonesborough Tennessee

Image hosted by

Any story contains those classic story elements we studied in English 101; plot, setting, characters. The National Storytelling Festival, a storied event in its own class, contains all these elements in abundance. Today's lesson will center on setting.

Making the pilgramage to Jonesborough, the setting of our festival, is a bit like Exodus, at least if you live in a place like southwest Wisconsin. To make this, my first-ever trip south of the Mason-Dixon line, I traveled first to stay with friends Karen and Jim Decker, outside Chicago, so that I could join a bus trip sponsored by the McHenry County Storytelling Guild. Like those Old Testament characters in Exodus, I made my journey with fellow travelers, winding our way across the Illinois plains, through Indiana, crossing the Ohio River, across Kentucky and into the Great Smoky Mountains at night, through fog so thick it seemed to swallow up our bus at times.
I chose to begin reading The Storyteller's Journey by Joseph Sobol, before embarking on this journey of my own. In it, Jim May, storyteller from Illinois and fellow Northlands member, talks of the night time travel providing the transition from a daily routine into a magical place. Pushing through that fog, his point was made real for us.

The long day of travel finished, with half a scarf under my belt along the way, we crash in anticipation of the next day, first day of the Festival.

The Coach USA bus takes us the half hour through those smokin' mountains into the charming town of Jonesborough, already besieged by traffic. Pulling up the the Visitors Center, the bus spills out its contents--us!--and we begin to take in the sights. Slightly wet sights, as there is a misty drizzle hanging over everything. Even that can't deny the picturesque appeal of this lovely town.

Image hosted by

Look at this! The entire street is a Historic Preservation site. There are two horse drawn carriages traveling the street, one all white and one black. Everything is decked out for the harvest season, dressed in its finest duds for all the storytellers and storylisteners. People stream along the streets, all with one goal---appreciation of tales well told.

Image hosted by

My first stop is the National Storytelling Association tent, next to the Mail Pouch building, now a craft shop, so that I can finally see the book that contains a chapter penned by moi. An exciting moment, made even more so by virtue of the ultracool name tag reserved just for the authors in attendance. I am not taking it off. I want to be buried with this name tag! Of all the many nametags I've had to wear, this one is most sublime indeed!

From this point on, it will be stories, stories, and more stories, seasoned with some communing with fellow storytelling friends. If there's a heaven on earth for storytellers, surely Jonesborough is that heaven. To be transported back in time to Main Street America, in those distant days before anything more diverting that visiting with neighbors on the streetside benches is the perfect prelude to full immersion in this age old artform.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

I have been to the mountaintop!

Image hosted by

Why did I wait so long to get there? Though I've been actively involved in storytelling and the storytelling community for over ten years, I'd never climbed the mountain that is the National Storytelling Festival, affectionately called by its devotees as simply "Jonesborough." Always, I'd be drawn, but that October date conflicted with my teaching contract. The travel to eastern Tennessee just seemed like a long haul I could ill afford to make.

This year, I made that long haul. After returning home, I can only ask myself...Whatever made me think this would be a long haul?

I can't even begin to describe the whole experience, so I'll take it in small chunks for a few days here. I'd often heard others describe the enormous sense of "too much" upon returning home from the Festival. Not in a bad way, no, not at all. More in a way of "too much to ever hope to enjoy in the short time we're transported here."

Indeed. Though I tried every possible permutation, I was not quite able to catch every single featured teller. Maybe it is possible, perhaps someone else reading this can explain to me how to do that, but even Nancy Donoval, one of the emcees, made the comment, "You can't ever see them all!" I came very close, but not quite.

In three days of wandering the charming streets of Jonesborough, I realized it's too much to hope to see everyone who might have also made the pilgrimage. It wasn't until Sunday afternoon that I ever saw my friend Maureen Korte from Des Moines, though she'd been at the Festival the entire time. I still wonder who else was there and never seen by me.

It's almost too much to try and take in the magical setting of Jonesborough itself, with its charming Main Street, horse drawn carriages appearing regularly throughout the day. The town itself is tucked in a valley within the Great Smoky Mountains, necessitating too much up and down hill climbing, which I actually found refreshing after being seated in the tents.

Ah, the tents. Several of them. Filled to capacity, capacity being around a thousand seats, I'm told. Storytelling enthusiasts from all over the country filled those seats, and they were more likely to be listeners than tellers. It's almost too much to believe there exists such a place, a place where people know that storytelling is not reading a story from a book.

The talent, oh the talent. Too much of that as well, so much so that the talent deserves an entry all its own. Bill Harley, Donald Davis, Ed Stivender, Milbre Burch, Gayle Ross, Kevin Kling, to name but a few.

Too much of everything, yet never enough. This is my impression of my first, but not last, National Storytelling Festival.